Solan Gidada – An Ethiopian Christian Hero

Solan Gidada – An Ethiopian Christian Hero

            His family name, Gidada, meant “one who weeps for his people.” But when Solan Gidada became blind at age five as a result of smallpox, his parents wept for him. But he was alive. Seven of his siblings had died from the same illness during an epidemic that swept through Ethiopia.

            None of the traditional remedies restored Solan’s sight. He seemed doomed to become a beggar for life.

From Beggar to Evangelist

            He was, in fact, begging at the entrance of the Orthodox Church at Aussa in 1919, when an American doctor, Thomas Lambie, passed by. Lambie, who had been serving as a missionary in Africa for a good part of twelve years, had been invited to the region by the local governor, Birru Wolde Gabriel, to assist hundreds of people who were dying of influenza.

            Gidada, about ten at that time, reached out his hand to Lambie, begging, “Santim, santim!”[1] (Ethiopia’s smallest coin). Lambie gave him a coin and told him about Christ. Gidada became the first Ethiopian to turn to Christ through Lambie’s efforts.

            Noticing Gidada’s bright mind, Lambie and other missionaries taught him to speak English and to memorize Scriptures. They also taught him to read and write, using the Braille code, in Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language), Oromifa (the language of Gidada’s tribe, the Oromo), and English.

            In 1924, Gidada married Dinse Sholi. Their first two children died soon after birth. Later, they had three more: Rachel (1927), Solomon (1935), and Negaso (1941).

            In the meantime, Gidada read avidly the Scriptures, and felt the urge to share what he was reading with those who didn’t yet know Christ. This desire was providential because, when Italy occupied Ethiopia in 1936, all British and American missionaries had to leave the country. The mission had to rely on local preachers.

            Gidada received some training at the missionary station, together with another Ethiopian, Mamo Chorqa. His first assignment was to share the gospel at a toll station where traders stopped daily to pay the toll tax.

            Chorqa became the first Ethiopian to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He was called to be the pastor of the church in Addis Ababa. Gidada was ordained a few months later, and called to the region of Sayo, where he was born.

            The last foreign missionary left in September 1936. Gidada remembered following him as far as he could, together with many other Ethiopian Christians. “This is the end of the missionaries. All of our friends are gone,” said one of the Ethiopians once the group had to stop. But a woman, Silde, who had been walking next to him, brought him back to reality: “May I ask you something? Has Christ also gone away from us?” The answer was obvious.

            Later, Gidada explained that this short exchange was told and retold around the Christian community. “It was true,” Gidada said. “Christ was not going away. He was always with us.”[2]

Arrest and Persecution

            Gidada’s mission was interrupted the same year when the Italian troops stationed in Ethiopia arrested him, Chorqa, and another pastor, Nagawo Tullu, on the charge of being spies for the British. Their suspicions had been raised by Sayo's proximity to British Sudan and the correspondence Ethiopian pastors had kept with English and American missionaries, especially the messages in Braille Gidada wrote and received. To the untrained soldiers, these looked as if they were written in a secret code. Besides, the Protestant missionaries looked like heretics to the Roman Catholic Italians.

            After eight days in a crowded Addis Ababa prison, the three men were taken to Jimma, the largest city in southwestern Oromia Region. There, Chorqa and Tullu were beaten almost to death during an interrogation. Gidada escaped the beatings when he explained that he was just a blind man serving the Lord. The prisoners were kept in a prison in Jimma until April 1941, when the British troops freed Ethiopia from the Italians. After the previous ruler, Haile Salasse, regained power, Gidada went to visit him to talk about his mission and the gospel of Christ.

            But Gidada’s troubles were not over. By 1951, the number of evangelical churches in the Sayo region had doubled. This became a matter of alarm for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) – the official state church, who had sided with the Italians against the evangelicals. The EOC’s resentment against evangelical missionaries was long-standing. But one reason why local people seemed to prefer the evangelical church was the language. While the EOC insisted on using the official Amharic, many populations in Ethiopia spoke other languages.

            Fearing a rapid loss of church members, the EOC ordered the evangelical churches to be closed and their pastors to be arrested.

            Gidada was thrown into prison once again. He was eventually released, but the EOC didn’t give him permission to reopen the churches, so he and other traveled to Addis Ababa to appeal their case to Emperor Haile Selassie. After hearing their case and deliberating the matter, the emperor allowed ten of the twenty churches to reopen. The whole process, from the initial closure to the partial reopening, took four years. In the meantime, the congregations worshiped outside, under some tree.

            In 1957, Gidada went on to serve as a pastor in the Mizan Teferi area of southern Ethiopia. The same year, he and his son Solomon represented the Evangelical Church Bethel at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. This event left a great impression on his mind, reminding him that the church of Christ is universal and can never be completely destroyed.

            Gidada died in 1977. His son Solomon went on to serve as the Ethiopian ambassador to London from 1992 to 1998. He also performed much humanitarian work as part of his church outreach. Solan’s second son, Negaso, was President of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2000.

            Gidada Theological College (originally named Gidada Bible School) is named after Solan Gidada and follows his vision of providing Ethiopia with well-trained pastors and leaders.

 



[1] E. Paul Balisky, Thomas Lambie: Missionary Doctor and Entrepreneur, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020,

[2] Christel Ahrens, Ebise Ashana, In Memory of Them: Women witnessing to Christ in Ethiopia (1870-2019), Zurich: Lit Verlag, 153